Runtime Descriptors

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The properties that characterize data values and objects in Fortran programs must sometimes be materialized when the program runs.

Some properties are known during compilation and constant during execution, yet must be reified anyway for execution in order to drive the interfaces of a language support library or the mandated interfaces of interoperable (i.e., C) procedure calls.

Note that many Fortran intrinsic subprograms have interfaces that are more flexible and generic than actual Fortran subprograms can be, so properties that must be known during compilation and are constant during execution may still need to be materialized for calls to the library, even if only by modifying names to distinguish types or their kind specializations.

Other properties are deferred to execution, and need to be represented to serve the needs of compiled code and the run time support library.

Previous implementations of Fortran have typically defined a small sheaf of descriptor data structures for this purpose, and attached these descriptors as additional hidden arguments, type components, and local variables so as to convey dynamic characteristics between subprograms and between user code and the run-time support library.


References are to the 12-2017 draft of the Fortran 2018 standard (N2146).

Section can be interpreted as a decent list of things that might need descriptors or other hidden state passed across a subprogram call, since such features (apart from assumed-length CHARACTER function results) trigger a requirement for the subprogram to have an explicit interface visible to their callers.

Section 15.5.2 has good laundry lists of situations that can arise across subprogram call boundaries.

A survey of dynamic characteristics

Length of assumed-length CHARACTER function results (B.3.6)

PRINT *, FOO('abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz')

prints abcdefgh because the length parameter of the character type of the result of FOO is passed across the call -- even in the absence of an explicit interface!

Assumed length type parameters (7.2)

Dummy arguments and associate names for SELECT TYPE can have assumed length type parameters, which are denoted by asterisks (not colons). Their values come from actual arguments or the associated expression (resp.).

Explicit-shape arrays (

The expressions used for lower and upper bounds must be captured and remain invariant over the scope of an array, even if they contain references to variables that are later modified.

Explicit-shape arrays can be dummy arguments, “adjustable” local variables, and components of derived type (using specification expressions in terms of constants and KIND type parameters).

Leading dimensions of assumed-size arrays (

  REAL A(2,3,*)

The total size and final dimension's extent do not constitute dynamic properties. The called subprogram has no means to extract the extent of the last (major) dimension, and may not depend upon it implicitly by using the array in any context that demands a known shape.

The values of the expressions used as the bounds of the dimensions that appear prior to the last dimension are, however, effectively captured on entry to the subprogram, and remain invariant even if the variables that appear in those expressions have their values modified later. This is similar to the requirements for an explicit-shape array.

Some function results

  1. Deferred-shape
  2. Deferred length type parameter values
  3. Stride information for POINTER results

Note that while function result variables can have the ALLOCATABLE attribute, the function itself and the value returned to the caller do not possess the attribute.

Assumed-shape arrays

The extents of the dimensions of assumed-shape dummy argument arrays are conveyed from those of the actual effective arguments. The bounds, however, are not. The called subprogram can define the lower bound to be a value other than 1, but that is a local effect only.

Deferred-shape arrays

The extents and bounds of POINTER and ALLOCATABLE arrays are established by pointer assignments and ALLOCATE statements. Note that dummy arguments and function results that are POINTER or ALLOCATABLE can be deferred-shape, not assumed-shape -- one cannot supply a lower bound expression as a local effect.


Some arrays can have discontiguous (or negative) strides. These include assumed-shape dummy arguments and deferred-shape POINTER variables, components, and function results.

Fortran disallows some conceivable cases that might otherwise require implied strides, such as passing an array of an extended derived type as an actual argument that corresponds to a nonpolymorphic dummy array of a base type, or the similar case of pointer assignment to a base of an extended derived type.

Other arrays, including ALLOCATABLE, can be assured to be contiguous, and do not necessarily need to manage or convey dynamic stride information. CONTIGUOUS dummy arguments and POINTER arrays need not record stride information either. (The standard notes that a CONTIGUOUS POINTER occupies a number of storage units that is distinct from that required to hold a non-CONTIGUOUS pointer.)

Note that Fortran distinguishes the CONTIGUOUS attribute from the concept of being known or required to be simply contiguous (9.5.4), which includes CONTIGUOUS entities as well as many others, and the concept of actually being contiguous (8.5.7) during execution. I believe that the property of being simply contiguous implies that an entity is known at compilation time to not require the use or maintenance of hidden stride values.

Derived type component initializers

Fortran allows components of derived types to be declared with initial values that are to be assigned to the components when an instance of the derived type is created. These include ALLOCATABLE components, which are always initialized to a deallocated state.

These can be implemented with constructor subroutines, inline stores or block copies from static initializer blocks, or a sequence of sparse offset/size/value component initializers to be emplaced by the run-time library.

N.B. Fortran allows kind type parameters to appear in component initialization constant expressions, but not length type parameters, so the initialization values are constants.

N.B. Initialization is not assignment, and cannot be implemented with assignments to uninitialized derived type instances from static constant initializers.

Polymorphic CLASS(), CLASS(*), and TYPE(*)

Type identification for SELECT TYPE. Default initializers (see above). Offset locations of ALLOCATABLE and polymorphic components. Presence of FINAL procedures. Mappings to overridable type-bound specific procedures.

Deferred length type parameters

Derived types with length type parameters, and CHARACTER, may be used with the values of those parameters deferred to execution. Their actual values must be maintained as characteristics of the dynamic type that is associated with a value or object . A single copy of the deferred length type parameters suffices for all of the elements of an array of that parameterized derived type.

Components whose types and/or shape depends on length type parameters

Non-pointer, non-allocatable components whose types or shapes are expressed in terms of length type parameters will probably have to be implemented as if they had deferred type and/or shape and were ALLOCATABLE. The derived type instance constructor must allocate them and possibly initialize them; the instance destructor must deallocate them.

Assumed rank arrays

Rank is almost always known at compilation time and would be redundant in most circumstances if also managed dynamically. DIMENSION(..) dummy arguments (, however, are a recent feature with which the rank of a whole array is dynamic outside the cases of a SELECT RANK construct.

The lower bounds of the dimensions of assumed rank arrays are always 1.

Cached invariant subexpressions for addressing

Implementations of Fortran have often maintained precalculated integer values to accelerate subscript computations. For example, given REAL*8 :: A(2:4,3:5), the data reference A(I,J) resolves to something like &A + 8*((I-2)+3*(J-3)), and this can be effectively reassociated to &A - 88 + 8*I + 24*J or &A - 88 + 8*(I + 3*J). When the offset term and coefficients are not compile-time constants, they are at least invariant and can be precomputed.

In the cases of dummy argument arrays, POINTER, and ALLOCATABLE, these addressing invariants could be managed alongside other dynamic information like deferred extents and lower bounds to avoid their recalculation. It‘s not clear that it’s worth the trouble to do so, since the expressions are invariant and cheap.

Coarray state (8.5.6)

A coarray is an ALLOCATABLE variable or component, or statically allocated variable (SAVE attribute explicit or implied), or dummy argument whose ultimate effective argument is one of such things.

Each image in a team maintains its portion of each coarray and can access those portions of the coarray that are maintained by other images in the team. Allocations and deallocations are synchronization events at which the several images can exchange whatever information is needed by the underlying intercommunication interface to access the data of their peers. (Strictly speaking, an implementation could synchronize images at allocations and deallocations with simple barriers, and defer the communication of remote access information until it is needed for a given coarray on a given image, so long as it could be acquired in a “one-sided” fashion.)

Presence of OPTIONAL dummy arguments

Typically indicated with null argument addresses. Note that POINTER and ALLOCATABLE objects can be passed to non-POINTER non-ALLOCATABLE dummy arguments, and their association or allocation status (resp.) determines the presence of the dummy argument.

Stronger contiguity enforcement or indication

Some implementations of Fortran guarantee that dummy argument arrays are, or have been made to be, contiguous on one or more dimensions when the language does not require them to be so (8.5.7 p2). Others pass a flag to identify contiguous arrays (or could pass the number of contiguous leading dimensions, although I know of no such implementation) so that optimizing transformations that depend on contiguity can be made conditional with multiple-version code generation and selected during execution.

In the absence of a contiguity guarantee or flag, the called side would have to determine contiguity dynamically, if it cares, by calculating addresses of elements in the array whose subscripts differ by exactly 1 on exactly 1 dimension of interest, and checking whether that difference exactly matches the byte size of the type times the product of the extents of any prior dimensions.

Host instances for dummy procedures and procedure pointers

A static link or other means of accessing the imported state of the host procedure must be available when an internal procedure is used as an actual argument or as a pointer assignment target.

Alternate returns

Subroutines (only) with alternate return arguments need a means, such as the otherwise unused function return value, by which to distinguish and identify the use of an alternate RETURN statement. The protocol can be a simple nonzero integer that drives a switch in the caller, or the caller can pass multiple return addresses as arguments for the callee to substitute on the stack for the original return address in the event of an alternate RETURN.

Implementation options

A note on array descriptions

Some arrays require dynamic management of distinct combinations of values per dimension.

One can extract the extent on a dimension from its bounds, or extract the upper bound from the extent and the lower bound. Having distinct extent and upper bound would be redundant.

Contiguous arrays can assume a stride of 1 on each dimension.

Assumed-shape and assumed-size dummy argument arrays need not convey lower bounds.

So there are examples of dimensions with

  • extent only (== upper bound): CONTIGUOUS assumed-shape, explict shape and multidimensional assumed-size with constant lower bound
  • lower bound and either extent or upper bound: ALLOCATABLE, CONTIGUOUS POINTER, general explicit-shape and multidimensional assumed-size
  • extent (== upper bound) and stride: general (non-CONTIGUOUS) assumed-shape
  • lower bound, stride, and either extent or upper bound: general (non-CONTIGUOUS) POINTER, assumed-rank

and these cases could be accompanied by precomputed invariant addressing subexpressions to accelerate indexing calculations.

Interoperability requirements

Fortran 2018 requires that a Fortran implementation supply a header file ISO_Fortran_binding.h for use in C and C++ programs that defines and implements an interface to Fortran objects from the interoperable subset of Fortran objects and their types suitable for use when those objects are passed to C functions. This interface mandates a fat descriptor that is passed by address, containing (at least)

  • a data base address
  • explicit rank and type
  • flags to distinguish POINTER and ALLOCATABLE
  • elemental byte size, and
  • (per-dimension) lower bound, extent, and byte stride

The requirements on the interoperability API do not mandate any support for features like derived type component initialization, automatic deallocation of ALLOCATABLE components, finalization, derived type parameters, data contiguity flags, &c. But neither does the Standard preclude inclusion of additional interfaces to describe and support such things.

Given a desire to fully support the Fortran 2018 language, we need to either support the interoperability requirements as a distinct specialization of the procedure call protocol, or use the ISO_Fortran_binding.h header file requirements as a subset basis for a complete implementation that adds representations for all the missing capabilities, which would be isolated and named so as to prevent user C code from relying upon them.

Design space

There is a range of possible options for representing the properties of values and objects during the execution of Fortran programs.

At one extreme, the amount of dynamic information is minimized, and is packaged in custom data structures or additional arguments for each situation to convey only the values that are unknown at compilation time and actually needed at execution time.

At the other extreme, data values and objects are described completely, including even the values of properties are known at compilation time. This is not as silly as it sounds -- e.g., Fortran array descriptors have historically materialized the number of dimensions they cover, even though rank will be (nearly) always be a known constant during compilation.

When data are packaged, their containers can be self-describing to some degree. Description records can have tag values or strings. Their fields can have presence flags or identifying tags, and fields need not have fixed offsets or ordering. This flexibility can increase binary compatibility across revisions of the run-time support library, and is convenient for debugging that library. However, it is not free.

Further, the requirements of the representation of dynamic properties of values and objects depend on the execution model: specifically, are the complicated semantics of intrinsic assignment, deallocation, and finalization of allocatables implemented entirely in the support library, in generated code for non-recursive cases, or by means of a combination of the two approaches?

Consider how to implement the following:

A = B

Fortran requires that A's arbitrary-length linked list be deleted and replaced with a “deep copy” of B's. So either a complicated pair of loops must be generated by the compiler, or a sophisticated run time support library needs to be driven with an expressive representation of type information.


We need to write ISO_Fortran_binding.h in any event. It is a header that is published for use in user C code for interoperation with compiled Fortran and the Fortran run time support library.

There is a sole descriptor structure defined in ISO_Fortran_binding.h. It is suitable for characterizing scalars and array sections of intrinsic types. It is essentially a “fat” data pointer that encapsulates a raw data pointer, a type code, rank, elemental byte size, and per-dimension bounds and stride.

Please note that the mandated interoperable descriptor includes the data pointer. This design in the Standard precludes the use of static descriptors that could be associated with dynamic base addresses.

The F18 runtime cannot use just the mandated interoperable struct CFI_cdesc_t argument descriptor structure as its all-purpose data descriptor. It has no information about derived type components, overridable type-bound procedure bindings, type parameters, &c.

However, we could extend the standard interoperable argument descriptor. The struct CFI_cdesc_t structure is not of fixed size, but we can efficiently locate the first address after an instance of the standard descriptor and attach our own data record there to hold what we need. There's at least one unused padding byte in the standard argument descriptor that can be used to hold a flag indicating the presence of the addenda.

The definitions of our additional run time data structures must appear in a header file that is distinct from ISO_Fortran_binding.h, and they should never be used by user applications.

This expanded descriptor structure can serve, at least initially for simplicity, as the sole representation of POINTER variables and components, ALLOCATABLE variables and components, and derived type instances, including length parameter values.

An immediate concern with this concept is the amount of space and initialization time that would be wasted when derived type components needing a descriptor would have to be accompanied by an instance of the general descriptor. (In the linked list example close above, what could be done with a single pointer for the REST component would become at least a four-word dynamic structure.) This concern is amplified when derived type instances are allocated as arrays, since the overhead is per-element.

We can reduce this wastage in two ways. First, when the content of the component‘s descriptor is constant at compilation apart from its base address, a static descriptor can be placed in read-only storage and attached to the description of the derived type’s components. Second, we could eventually optimize the storage requirements by omitting all static fields from the dynamic descriptor, and expand the compressed dynamic descriptor during execution when needed.